This review was first published in Issue 207 of Top Gear magazine (2010)
The road is perfectly surfaced, invitingly wide and coiled like a broad, pale, concrete snake up a breathlessly scenic mountain. I’m sat at the bottom in a Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible, roof down, listening to the deep-chested, purring whisper of the 621bhp W12, sunshine burning through the ‘King James’ red paintwork and my increasingly burnished forehead in equal measure. But there is a problem: the speed limit is a slow-motion 25mph and the local – armed – American police seem to be inordinately well-funded. They infest the route with depressing regularity.
Yup, that’s right. I’m sat in 202mph of the fastest four-door convertible in the world, and the local speed limits mean that I can break the most extreme of them in first gear, with the other five ratios in the six-speed ‘box simply deciding how many nights I get to spend in a Rocky Mountain jail trying not to look anyone in the eye. I don’t think there’s a word in the dictionary for this kind of frustrated. So far it translates in my head as “Nnnnnnggg”. Best said while rocking gently back and forth.
One of the main reasons is that this chop-top really does look the part. The bloodthirsty paint looks spectacular in this potent sunshine, the black 20-inch wheels the perfect foil for such an eye-gouging colour. The black hood is currently stowed, exposing a beautiful interior full of contrast stitch and pipe, quilt and carbon fibre. It feels special. The exterior gets much of the Supersports treatment carried over from the SS Coupe: slightly darker light clusters – in fact all the brightware on the car is gently black-chromed – slash-cut intercooler feeds on the outer edges of the redesigned front bumper, those flow-formed super-lightweight black wheels. The other stuff is harder to spot; the rear track is wider – handled in the offset of those rims – the ride height is some 10mm lower than the GTC at the front and 15mm at the rear, and hot air vents are Supersports-spec and tucked into the line of the bonnet. A suite of changes that add up to one hard-looking convertible, with even Bentley referring to it as an ‘extreme machine’.
A couple of bits certainly don’t match the ‘extreme Bentley’ pitch though: one is the multi-layer fabric hood, and the other is the re-introduction of a pair of back seats in place of the Supersport Coupe’s lateral brace bar. A roll-back roof and extra seating for passengers? Doesn’t sound extreme to me. But in the context of this particular car, it makes perfect sense.
The reason? Well, there’s a tendency to regard any very high-performance cabrio with suspicion. They are, if you think in straight lines, quite fabulously contradictory. If you want toothy and sharp in extremis, then it’s unlikely you also require a convertible roof from which to admire your lack of torsional rigidity. Basically, you don’t chop the roof off a car and then show your re-working quite so blatantly. Anyway, it’d look a bit crap and you’d be inviting other engineers to look at it and laugh out loud. In technical terms, it’d be very much shutting the door after the horse had kicked the door off its hinges.
Instead the Convertible has all the usual structure tweaks to cope with the loss of the upper portion of the important bit. Higher-strength steel in the remaining backbone of the monocoque, some whacking great big cross braces under the floor to tie the front to the back, and the left to the right. It nearly works, but to be honest, you can still feel the car shimmy and kick back through the steering when it gets upset about the road surface – nothing buzz-killing, but certainly enough to notice.
Weirdly, it gets better the faster you drive. And after a few hours of respectfully weighing up the probability of cop-involvement vs driving satisfaction, we find a quiet road and let the SS bound along at its own pace. And it’s good. Gun it stupidly from a standing start and there’s not even a sniff of traction-related issues, just a seemingly endless push to the centre of your chest. There’s a definite blurry burble on upchanges that sounds for all the world like an Audi or VW DSG upchange, except deeper and more grown-up, and the 40/60 front-rear split to the four-wheel-drive system perks up the car through tighter corners, especially on initial turn-in.
The steering cruises nicely – but seems to have the comforting motorway podginess removed – much nicer when you’re going a bit quicker. The air suspension has been recalibrated, though given the fairly silky ride even in ‘Sport’ and with the dampers wound down as far as they’d go, without a stock GTC to drive back-to-back it’s hard to tell the absolute difference. It stops too: the largest diameter carbon-ceramics fitted to a production car see to that. But one thing’s for sure; this isn’t some sort of compromised special. More like the ultimate iteration of something already quite familiar.
Which is the SS’s only problem. Despite the pretensions and the terminology used by Bentley itself, it’s still unlikely that you’d be able to ruffle too many feathers with the SS. The performance – though mighty in itself – is delivered with the kind of silken thump in the back that means that it doesn’t actually feel that quick. Stare at the dials when you give it some throttle and you see the numbers free-fall upwards – a neater indication of just how fast the thing is – but in normal circumstances, I don’t think your passengers will clock it.
Now that, of course, is both a good and a bad thing. Super-civilised cruising (especially with the triple lined, acoustically-tweaked hood up) with ballistic pace. What more could you want? Well, I can get that stuff from the 600bhp Speed GTC. So when I tick the Supersports box, maybe I do want something definitively more aggressive. Louder, and much harder. Something that might make my passengers giggle nervously. The Supersports feels like a tauter GTC Speed, rather than the nearest relation to the Supersports Coupe.
Kind of hard to care though. Because this car makes you smile, simple as that. For an ageing design, it still looks spectacular wearing all the Supersports war paint, and the drive is as easy and yet comfortingly blistering as it always was. It might not be as wanton or surprisingly extreme as the Coupe, but when it comes to the most rounded fast four-seater in the world, a drop-top Continental still holds the crown.